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Much attention at the 2016 World Economic Forum has been focused on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With the proliferation of advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, machine learning and advances in biotechnology and advanced materials, the skills needed to be an integral member of the workforce will change. Jobs will change. Some will be lost, some will grow, and others will be entirely new.

And in this brave new world, the journalism field will change too. Already, the Associated Press (AP) has used an automated system to produce news stories. The system, which in 2015 was reported as producing around 3,000 stories per quarter, could potentially produce an estimated 2,000 articles per second.

Andreas Graefe, of the Ludwig Maximilian Univ. of Munich, is studying how humans react to content produced by computer systems.

“At the moment, the approach is used primarily for the coverage of financial and sporting news,” said Graefe. “In both these fields, reports are largely based on already structured data. But the strategy will undoubtedly be extended to cover other subject areas and topics.”    

Automated journalism works in a variety of ways. On a simple level, a code can glean numbers from a database and then insert the numbers into pre-written template stories. Other methods attempt to create more complex narratives via big data analytics and natural language generation technology.

According to Columbia Univ.’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, there are 11 companies currently providing automated journalism solutions. But the field is growing quickly.

The technology has made its way into the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times for earthquake and homicide reporting.

Previous studies have shown that human-written news stories tend to score higher in readability. However, automated news was rated higher in credibility.

“Machine-generated sentences are usually short, and these texts generally contain large amounts of quantitative data, i.e. numbers,” said Graefe. “Perhaps those readers who turn first to financial news do not expect, or even hope, to find it presented in a particularly vivid or lively style.”

The question of why computer-generated stories appear more credible still needs to be investigated, according to Graefe.

Graefe sees these computer algorithms improving over time. Automated journalism is still in its nascent stages, but the trend may cause some flesh and blood journalists to worry about their career’s stability.

And automated journalism may lead to a loss of routine task jobs.

“Many routine tasks can be allocated to algorithms, giving journalists more time to research and investigate stories,” said Graefe. “We will see robots producing first drafts, which the journalists will then edit and supplement. I spoke to a sports reporter at AP about this, and he told me that he used to have to begin writing his report as soon as the game was over. Now as algorithms can summarize the game, he actually has time to interview the players.”        

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